More than 25 ethnic organizations in northeast India’s Assam state on Tuesday launched a statewide protest against a bill that would grant citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016 directly conflicts with the 1985 Assam Accord that deems any person – Hindu or Muslim – illegal if found entering the state from Bangladesh after March 24, 1971, protesters said. The bill is slated to be presented for debate in the Indian parliament next month. It gives the right of citizenship to Hindus who claim they are fleeing persecution in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Assam shares 263 km (163.4 miles) of its border with Bangladesh. Of that, about 144 km (89.4 miles) is land and 119 km (74 miles) is river.
“Each and every Bangladeshi has to leave Assam. There cannot be a selective approach. We are committed to protect the Assam Accord, which stipulates that anyone illegally entering Assam has to be deported to the countries of origin,” Atul Bora of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), an anti-immigrant group, told BenarNews.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) introduced the bill nearly two years ago.
“If passed, the bill would give the right of Indian citizenship to over 150,000 Bangladeshi Hindus who are currently residing in Assam and many more that would enter without any valid documents. That would mean loss of jobs for the local Assamese population and loss of our culture to Bengali-speaking immigrants,” Bora said.
Bora’s AGP is linked to a local student group that spearheaded anti-Bangladeshi agitation that led to the deaths of nearly 2,200 people in the early 1980s. The violence ended with the signing of the accord between the government and the influential All Assam Students Union (AASU).
The new protests are aimed at getting the government to drop the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, said a member of the AASU.
“Assam has already taken the burden of lot of refugees during partition and thereafter. The state cannot be a dumping ground for illegal Bangladeshis,” Samajjul Bhattacharya, a union member, told BenarNews.
Divide and rule policy
The Indian National Congress, the BJP’s principal opposition party, also threatened to join the statewide stir.
“Modi is saying Hindus are being targeted in Bangladesh, so he wants to give them shelter. We will oppose this bill tooth and nail,” Tarun Gogoi, Assam’s former chief minister from the Congress, told BenarNews.
Muslim leaders also are criticizing the BJP over the bill.
“BJP is a communal party and they want to implement the notorious agenda to divide people on religious lines. Granting citizenship to only Hindus who migrated from Bangladesh is a step toward that,” Hafiz Ahmed, president of the Char Chapori Organization, which works for the development of people living in the river border areas, told BenarNews.
Sahadev Das, president of the Assam chapter of the Nikhil Bharat Bengali Udbastu Samanay Samiti (NBBUSS), an Assam-based organization fighting for the cause of Bangladeshi Hindus, disagreed.
“Religious persecution in Bangladesh makes it impossible for Hindus to go back. For years we have been demanding that Bangladeshi Hindus be granted not just refugee status but Indian citizenship. By allowing Bangladeshi Hindus to continue to stay in India without valid papers, India has come half way to fulfill that demand,” Das told BenarNews.
He was referring to a decision by the Indian government to allow Hindu refugees who have entered India legally from Bangladesh and Pakistan before Dec. 31, 2014, to keep staying in the country indefinitely.
‘Natural home for Hindus’
The BJP, however, defended its move, saying the bill would ensure that Assam does not become a Muslim-majority state.
“India is a natural home for persecuted Hindus. Where will they go? And granting citizenship to Hindu Bengalis will benefit Assam as it would stop Muslims from becoming [a] majority,” Himanta Biswa Sarma, BJP’s senior cabinet minister, told BenarNews.
According to a 1998 report by the governor of Assam, the state’s Muslim population grew by 77 percent compared with the national average of 55 percent between 1971 and 1991, indicating large-scale cross-border migration.
But political observers see this move by the BJP government as a strategy to better the party’s prospects to create a Hindu vote bank.
A post-poll survey following BJP’s election victory in the state in May showed the party commanded 63 percent of votes from Assamese Hindus because of its stand against illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. The survey, conducted by international polling agency Cvoter, also revealed that almost 70 percent of Bengali-speaking Hindus in the state voted for the BJP.
“It (the bill) is a clear attempt by the BJP government to further polarize the state on communal lines. The party is trying to create a vote bank of Hindus by appeasing them through such moves,” Monirul Hussain, a Guwahati-based political analyst, told BenarNews.
“Modi should realize [that] Assamese people, who feel very strongly against the Bangladeshi migrant issue, voted for his party when he promised that he will flush out every Bangladeshi from the state. And now he is trying to tweak the core clause of the Assam Accord to grant citizenship to the Hindu Bangladeshis living in Assam. Those votes by the ethnic Assamese to the party will vanish as quickly as they came,” Hussain said.